Alfred Bernhard Nobel was a Swedish chemist, engineer, inventor, businessman, and philanthropist.

He held 355 different patents, dynamite being the most famous.

He owned Bofors, which he redirected from its previous role as primarily an iron and steel producer to a major manufacturer of cannon and other armaments.

Nobel’s complex personality puzzled his contemporaries. Although his business interests required him to travel almost constantly, he remained a lonely recluse who was prone to fits of depression.

He led a retired and simple life and was a man of ascetic habits, yet he could be a courteous dinner host, a good listener, and a man of incisive wit.

He never married, and apparently preferred the joys of inventing to those of romantic attachment. It can’t get nerdier than that 🙂

Alfred died on December 10, 1896. In his last will and testament, he wrote that much of his fortune was to be used to give prizes to those who have done their best for humanity in the field of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.

Not everybody was pleased with this. His will was opposed by his relatives and questioned by authorities in various countries.

It took four years for his executors to convince all parties to follow Alfred’s wishes.

The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, five years after his death.

Nobel Prizes went on to become one of the most sought after prize in the world as a mark of those who have contributed immensely in the 6 categories of Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, Peace and Economic Sciences.

Between 1901 and 2020, the Nobel Prizes were awarded 603 times to about 962 Laureates in 6 categories.

When Albert Einstein first won the Nobel Prize in 1921 he was 42. The youngest winner is Malala Yousafzai at 17 years of age in 2014.

Nobel prize winners have been getting older and more specialized in the past century.

For the science awards, the average age for a Nobel Prize winner is 58 years.

With more knowledge being created, the time it takes to get to the cutting edge of a field is increasing. The definition of a field is getting narrower, too. So, a future Nobel prize winner will have to spend a much longer period of time to first understand everything that has happened before and then innovate.

There are implications for us, non-Nobel Prize winners, too.

Over this century, our world has seen a tremendous increase in knowledge too.

While we can probably do well at our current jobs by investing just in functional expertise, having an understanding of the big picture will get harder and harder.

It will require us to invest in learning in a way that makes us look more like Nobel Prize winners.

We are approaching an interesting crossroads as we transition from an era of industrialization to an era of technology and connection.

The previous transition between eras was very bloody and only settled after multiple wars. This era is seeing signs of unrest, too. The wave of populism [Occupy, Trumpism, Brexit, Rise in Dictatorships] we are seeing around the world is not going away any time soon. 

It does not just affect our politics. It affects our lives. And, if we intend to contribute to the solution, understanding what is driving these reactions and understanding why the things we take granted in our societies are the way they are will be an important first step.

That’s at least how I’m approaching all this noise.

I’m working my way through a reading list that involves spending time in the past and the future in equal measure, The Inevitable [on technology], The Geography of Genius [on talent], The Seventh Sense [on networks], Bad Samaritans [on free trade], The Accidental Superpower [on geopolitics], Closing The Gap [Artificial Intelligence in Africa], On Fire [Climate Change], and Capital and Ideology [on a thesis about the next era].

We must first understand why things are as they are. Only then can we ask why not.

We may not all be Nobel Prize winners, but we can approach our work with the attitude of Nobel Prize winners.

Maybe we can our most amazing work because we care, because it matters.

Sawubona.

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